In early April, organisers of a conference I was planning to attend in London emailed me to say the event had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I read their email, I realised that another event I was due to attend in July, this time in Belgium, would likely be cancelled too.
Despite being genuinely excited to participate in these events, rather than feeling disappointed, I felt an unusual sense of relief, a sense of liberty – I was saved from going through the gruelling visa application process and later being interrogated at airports, before and after each trip.
Some eight years ago, when I escaped my home country of Eritrea – where travel is considered a privilege, not a right – and landed at a US airport, I had wrongly assumed that I could finally reclaim my dignity and humanity in what appeared to be a free country. But in the years that followed, I learned the hard way that for an asylum seeker like me, in any country, finding real freedom is a lifelong journey.
Immigration and asylum systems in most countries around the world, including the US, are shaped by a mindset that considers immigrants not fully human. I had to go through unnecessary, dehumanising and degrading medical tests and submit endless, hard-to-get-hold-of documents to secure permanent residency in the US. But even after I managed to get the coveted Green Card and acquire some legal standing in the country, the American immigration system’s attempts to dehumanise me did not come to an end.
To this day, every time I attempt to travel internationally, I am reminded of the hierarchies of humanity. The never-ending security checks, Kafkaesque application procedures, and aggressive interrogations by airport workers make me feel guilty for even asking for permission to travel. I know I am not alone in feeling this way – immigration systems are built to make immigrants feel like they pose a threat to their host country and the world at large.
Before getting my Green Card, each time I wanted to travel outside the US, I had to apply for a “travel document” – a document for stateless individuals that is used in lieu of a passport. Each travel document is theoretically valid for a year, but in practice for only six months, as you cannot leave the country without a travel document that is valid for at least six months.
Getting a travel document is not easy either.
The first time, it took the authorities some seven months to process my application, and in the end, I had to cancel my travel plans. The second time, it took them six months, and I had to postpone my trip once again.
After receiving my Green Card, I became eligible for a “re-entry permit”, which is a similar document that is valid for two years. Renewing a re-entry permit, of course, is as complicated and time-consuming as getting a travel document.
These permits and documents are not cheap either.
Each travel document costs $220, while the price of a re-entry permit is $660.
And securing a travel document is only the beginning of the ordeal.
After getting a re-entry permit or a travel document, someone like me also needs to go through the maddening visa application process to leave the US.
For example, when I wanted to travel to the UK in April 2019 for a two-day conference, alongside my biometric data and a very detailed application form, I had to submit the following documents to secure a visa:
- An official invitation letter from the organisers stating they would be covering all expenses;
- A programme for the conference so the authorities could make sure it was real;
- A copy of my Green Card, so that the authorities could be sure that I would be returning home after my visit;
- A copy of a house lease in the US, for the same purpose;
- A copy of my academic credentials;
- A bank statement, to prove that I had enough money to survive in the UK;
- A copy of my marriage certificate to prove that I had sufficient family ties to ensure my return;
- A copy of the birth certificate of my daughter – who was born in the US – for the same reason;
- An award letter from my school that indicated that I am in good standing and still enrolled;
- A copy of my tax-returns to demonstrate that we have sufficient income as a family;
- Print-outs of writing samples from media outlets.
Of course, even getting a visa does not guarantee an easy journey.
I have to go through many more hurdles at airports.
Anticipating that anything may happen, I always make sure that I go to the airport hours before my scheduled flight. When I present my travel document to obtain a boarding pass, a puzzled look appears on the faces of airline workers. After incessantly typing on their keyboards for several minutes, they always ask the same question: “Do you have other documents apart from this?”
When I tell them that I am allowed to travel on the document I presented, they either consult their colleagues, call their bosses, or start asking me random and completely irrelevant questions in an attempt to hide their confusion.
It is hard not to get intimidated and angry when being subjected to such unnecessary, and at times aggressive, interrogation, but I always force myself to remain calm.
After all, I know that the person in charge, if so inclined, can take action to postpone or even completely cancel my travel plans.
Sometimes, even obtaining a boarding pass is not enough to get on a plane.
In April 2019, when I was travelling to the UK, I had a connecting flight at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. To transfer from the local to the international terminal within the airport, I needed to take the airport shuttle. “No, we do not accept travel documents,” stated the officer in charge of the shuttle when I showed her my document and boarding pass.
I requested an explanation. After checking with her colleague, she replied, “We have been told that travel documents are not valid.” Then came the usual call, the usual reading of the title of my travel document and who issued it, and the usual hushed discussions between airport workers. I was eventually cleared to board the bus that would take me to the terminal, but I was left feeling stressed and anxious. Was I committing a crime by trying to travel to another country?
And, while leaving the US is a nerve-wracking experience, returning is not easy either.
When I land at a US airport, airline workers often order me to head to the waiting area. As I wait to be interrogated and searched, I wonder what the officials are doing. Are they keeping me waiting just to make me feel more anxious? Are they searching my name online to find more information about me? Are they planning to prevent me from getting on my connecting flight?
Airports – with their elaborate security procedures and frightening intercom announcements – are not easy for me to handle. Perhaps they are intimidating even for some who are lucky enough to have a powerful passport. But for me, there is also the added stress of feeling guilty for some imaginary wrongdoing. Every time I am in an airport, I ask myself if I am offending anyone by being there, or perhaps if I should have been allowed to travel in the first place. I always try to conceal my travel document from fellow passengers, as if it is a crime to possess such a paper and as if it would make them think I do not belong there.
In 2007, I wrote a short story about a man stuck “in transit” at an airport. Back then I had no experience of airports, it was just an allegory for my life, my captivity, in Eritrea. Little did I know one day, after leaving Eritrea for good, spending endless hours at airports and not knowing when, or if, I could reach my destination, would be a regular reality for me.
Today we are living through a pandemic that made travel a painful ordeal full of obstacles for every single one of us. While, like everyone else, I am frustrated about cancelled plans, lost opportunities and the feeling of captivity, I am also grateful.
Because now, for once, all human beings in the world, whatever travel document they may possess, are experiencing travel as I do.
The pandemic has levelled us and left us all in a perpetual state of transit.
I hope, when we are all free to travel without fear once again, politicians and immigration officials around the world will remember this experience, and start treating us all, regardless of the type of travel document we possess, with dignity and humanity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.